Maybe you watched him all summer. Maybe he showed up last year or this fall. Whenever he showed up, and wherever he came from, bucks that make your wish-list are special. This is especially true for those that rise to the top and become your primary target buck. These headliners can make it easier for you to rise in pre-dawn hours, go afield in harsh weather, and stay longer in uncomfortable stands. You plan, hunt, reassess, adjust and hunt again. Then it happens. Your target buck is shot by another hunter. I’m going to give you good reasons to keep hunting and even be optimistic about the rest of your season.
I’ve chased several bucks eventually taken by neighbors and other hunters. Sure, I Ionged to be the one getting my picture taken with them. It’s okay to feel an initial wave of disappointment. After all, you may have days or months invested in hunting that animal. However, don’t let those negative feelings last more than a few minutes. Get over yourself and congratulate the lucky hunter. I would much rather have a fellow hunter get the opportunity to smile and appreciate that animal than to see it hit by a car, struck by disease or taken by a hungry predator.
Stay in the Hunt
Once you’ve extended your congrats, it’s time to get back in the game. There are other bucks on the landscape worth pursuing, even if you aren’t aware of their presence.
In the 2022 deer season my son Bo’s No. 1 target buck was a 4½-year-old, mainframe 10-point with matching kickers off both G2s, giving him 12 scorable points. A Boone & Crockett tape would have landed him around 125 inches. We followed this buck from August through early-November in trail-camera photos. We only saw him in person one time on November 8 in all his glory. He was at 50 yards when shooting hours ended that evening. So close, but farther than I was going to let my young son shoot his crossbow.
Four days later, the buck was a 9-point after breaking off three tines. By November 13, he was down to a 7-point. We decided to give the buck a pass if we saw him again, making him just as unattainable as if he’d been shot by another hunter.
Seventeen days later, Bo shot a buck we hadn’t seen all season. At 6½ years old with 11 points totaling 150 inches, it was the highest-scoring buck in our deer camp’s nearly 50-year history. You don’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get more. Bo’s 2022 deer was larger than his original target buck.
Maybe you run a lot of cameras and feel you have a pretty good idea of the bucks in the neighborhood? Us too. We had over 10,000 pics from that summer and fall and only a single photo of the buck Bo killed. How does that happen? Let’s take a look at some deer behavior and movement patterns that will give you the optimism you need to keep hunting.
Whitetails are very social animals that routinely exchange information at rubs and scrapes. Scrape use increases during the rut, and that corresponds to increased daily movement as well as increased use of seasonal home ranges. What is a home range? Scientists who track deer define the home range as the area where an individual deer spends 95% of its time.
Numerous research projects using GPS tracking collars show the annual home range of adult bucks (2½ to 7½ years old) varies from less than 300 acres in Louisiana to 300 to 600 acres in Maryland and Pennsylvania, to over 2,000 acres in South Texas. Those same studies show bucks use a larger portion of their home range during peak rut, followed by slightly smaller amounts during pre- and post-rut.
Since they’re covering more ground, they’re more likely to get shot (maybe by you), and there’s a chance they’ll get shot far from where they spent their summer and early fall. Thus, even if your target buck is dead, keep your chin up. Other hunters’ target bucks may now be roaming your area! So, keep hunting.
Busting Out of the Core
Another aspect of home range studies includes “core area” use. While a buck’s home range is where you can find him 95% of the time, his core area is the portion of his home range where he can be found 50% of the time. Core areas are much smaller areas within a home range. For example, the Louisiana study referenced above found an average home range of 269 acres and an average core area of 59 acres. The Maryland study found 559 (home range) and 86 (core area). Pennsylvania was 323 and 66, and Texas was 2,271 and 224. What’s important from a hunting standpoint is that on average, bucks’ use of their core area is lowest during peak rut, meaning they’re traveling a lot. But it’s still just over 50% post-rut, meaning they’re still covering a lot of ground right now! In other words, keep hunting.
Home Range Shape
Another aspect of home range playing in your favor this time of year is shape. Not all bucks’ home ranges are somewhat circular or “globular” shaped. Many are dumbbell shaped with one or more miles separating the ends. Hence, a buck you haven’t seen all summer or fall (or maybe ever) can react to hunting pressure or some unknown factor and move right into your neighborhood. Be sure you’re in the woods to welcome him when he does.
The final behavioral trait providing optimism for you is excursions. Excursions are typically defined as 1- to 5-mile movements outside of an animal’s home range that last for one to three days. They are different from dispersal and normal movements within a home range. Think of them as short vacations.
Bucks and does go on excursions. They occur in all age classes, and they’re well documented in the eastern two thirds of the United States. In a Maryland study, nearly 60% of collared bucks went on an excursion during the rut, and 20% did during post-rut. In a South Texas study, 100% of collared bucks went on an excursion during the rut, and 41% did post-rut.
A summary of excursion research shows about 50% of bucks go on excursions, and for those that do, about half go on more than one. Movement outside of their home range averaged 1.5 miles and ranged from 0.25 to 186 miles! Bucks returned to their core areas in an average of 16 hours, but individually they ranged from two hours to a few days. Bucks on excursions can walk by your stand at any point. Keep hunting.
Absence of Evidence is Not Evidence of Absence
Today’s hunters use cameras more than any point in our hunting history to scout and attempt to understand which bucks are potentially available for harvest. I am a huge trail-camera fan and have been using them since my graduate school days in the early 1990s. I’m the first to admit many hunters place far too much value in what they show, or more importantly, what they don’t show. Photos show a buck was there today or maybe for several days or weeks, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be there tomorrow or ever again. Conversely, not getting photos of a buck doesn’t mean he hasn’t been there, isn’t there, or more importantly, won’t be there later this season. Keep hunting!
Several years ago, my hunting camp was having a relatively slow deer season. We weren’t seeing as many bucks as we expected, and many camp mates were losing optimism and hunting fewer hours as a result. It was late November in northern Pennsylvania, and peak rut had passed. I had a camera on a scrape about 200 yards from our camp. You could see the tree from camp.
I pulled the card one day while hunting, and its contents blew our minds. Over the span of 13 days, I got 88 pics of 20 different bucks, including eight that were at least 3½ years old. One was a mature buck with a very abnormal, unique rack. We photographed him a few times over a two-day period, but never saw or photographed him before or after. After we published that story in Quality Whitetails magazine in February 2013, a neighbor contacted me about that buck. He spent most of his time on my neighbor’s land just over one mile away and was mostly a home body. He had pics of the buck over multiple years and even a few shed antlers, but never saw the buck in-person.
The buck disappeared for a few days that December, and my neighbor thought he must have gotten shot. The take home message is 1) even more sedentary bucks can find themselves a mile or more from home, and 2) while some of my hunting buddies were convinced there weren’t any good bucks on our farm, there were several within sight of camp, including one of the coolest in the county.
So, given these personal examples and a summary of research involving literally millions of deer movement data points, what do you do if your target buck gets killed? First, quickly congratulate the lucky hunter. Then, get back to the woods. A bruiser may already be heading to your stand, and he just might be bigger than your initial target buck!